Potatoes sprout a dream for specialty 'tater farm
By Matt Drake
Nestled at the foot of Goat Mountain in Boundary County lies Ronniger's Potato Farm where 25 types of specialty potatoes and other certified organic produce are grown, a shrub and berry seed business flourishes, and Halflinger horses are being raised.
In his youth, David Ronninger worked in his family's natural foods store in Utah alongside his brother and sister but dreamed of some day growing organic produce on his own. In the mid '70s he spent some time touring the interior Northwest in search of ground to farm. Of all the towns he visited, Bonners Ferry struck his fancy. He moved up in 1977 to a small acreage in Curley Creek, a few miles east of the farm's current location on old Highway 2.
Getting started wasn't easy. Ronninger spent the first couple years doing seasonal work, planting trees for the Forest Service and picking huckleberries. Originally he simply picked the berries and sold them to nurseries who processed the seeds for use on their own farms. One day a friend suggested Ronninger try selling seed directly.
"I took two weeks and visited some small seed companies to study their machinery. When I got back Amazin' Mike Mazon built me a macerator and extractor. He truly is amazing," Ronninger's voice trails off and he stares out over his fields remembering the magic of those early days. "There is an incredible abundance here. We sell over 30 varieties of native berries."
Ronninger's partner, Lynn Bush takes up the story. "There were only five seed companies that dealt with natural shrubs and trees in those days. We specialize in shrubs that bear berries. There's more we could do, but there's a limit because of some overlap."
It has been 20 years since the first berries were crushed at the farm, and business is thriving.
"During all those years I spent out in the forest planting trees, I could only dream about getting back to organic farming, which I had set out to do in the first place," Ronninger said. "In 1987 we planted about 40 varieties of potatoes on three acres instead of planting trees. We printed up a one-page catalog, named it 'Ronniger's Seed Potatoes' and sent about 3,000 copies to Larry Geno at Bear Creek Nursery in Northport, Wash. He sent those out with his orders. That first year we broke even, and we were on our way."
In 1992 Martha Stewart caught wind of Ronniger's unique potatoes and wrote them up in her magazine, Martha Stewart Living. Articles in Food Arts, Food and Wine and even The New Yorker followed.
By 1994 Ronniger boasted close to 200 varieties of seed potatoes with names like Rose Finn Apple, German Butterball, Blue Eyed Russian and Purple Peruvian. As the choices grew, so did the catalog, and by 1997 it was 50 pages, describing potato lineages as colorfully as the tubers and fingerlings themselves. "Anna Cheeka's Ozette - Historic heirloom said to be brought from Peru in the late 1700s by the Spanish explorers and traded with the Makah/Ozette Indian tribe of Neah Bay, Washington. Rather thin skin, flaky cream colored flesh and an unusual number of deep eyes running in a lovely spiral pattern. Delicious and romantic."
Although the catalog emphasized buying potatoes as seed, Ronninger began high grading some of his favorites for wholesale to produce distributors. Soon the spuds were making appearances in some of the nation's best restaurants. At the end of 1997, Ronninger and Bush sold the potato seed business along with its mailing list and quaint catalog to a small farm in Washington so they could focus on the wholesale business.
"We're developing a huckster service here ... It's like taking a produce cart directly to our customers," he said.
With the shrub and berry seed business flourishing, the specialty spud market booming and the huckster service in full swing, one might expect David Ronniger to take it easy for a spell. Don't bet on it.
"We like to start things. We're the first in Idaho to breed Halflinger's and we're on the ground floor in the western U.S.," Ronninger says, proudly.
Over the years the property has grown to 130 acres. Twenty years of labor and planning have paid off; Ronninger's dream has blossomed into reality.